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All Things Considered, Devils Fans Have Been Pretty Patient

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Watching the Devils over most of the last decade has been a lousy experience far more often than not. Given that state of affairs, the fanbase has actually remained fairly patient with the organization over that stretch. How much longer will that last, though?

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It’s now pretty safe to declare the Devils dead and buried for this season as they currently reside a robust 13 points out of the playoff picture, ahead of only the hapless Buffalo Sabres in the East Division standings. It’s certainly no surprise that the Devils won’t be heading to the playoffs in 2021, but prior to the past few weeks, they had opened the season promisingly and figured to at least hang around for a while before their flaws as a team and a very deep division caught up to them. Those things did catch up to them but instead of a couple months, it took about two weeks. The team has been spiraling ever since their third game beyond their COVID-19-induced hiatus and after another stinker last night on Long Island, things don’t appear to be headed back in the right direction any time soon.

Given the team’s complete collapse over the past few weeks that has sent them from 6-3-2 to 8-12-3, there has been a lot of grumbling within the fanbase and plenty of frustration with the team’s failures coming to a boil. There has been an element of whiplash present here, with fans actually feeling quite positive before the arrival of this disastrous tailspin. Earlier this week, Athletic writer Corey Masisak stirred up a minor Devils Twitter kerfuffle when he tweeted out a link to a mailbag with a question asking why Devils fans are so fickle headlining the tweet:

Because it’s Twitter and people don’t actually read articles (particularly paywalled ones), people got a bit bent out of shape at the insinuation that the fanbase is being unreasonable about the team. Of course, this was literally a question received from a fan that he just repeated verbatim in the tweet and answered (pretty reasonably and mostly in defense of the fanbase) in the actual mailbag. Given that fact, the minor pile-on Masisak received probably wasn’t exactly fair, but it’s easy to see why such a question, presented without context, would touch a nerve with the fanbase at this point.

“Why are Devils fans so fickle?” is a question with such an obvious answer that it doesn’t really seem like a thing you need to bother asking. The team is effectively in year seven of a rebuild and year nine of being a non-factor in the league’s competitive landscape. If you lifted out one insane Taylor Hall season from last decade, the Devils would be in the midst of the second-longest playoff drought in the league (behind the Sabres). As it stands, they currently own the fourth-longest active postseason series win drought (behind the Sabres, Leafs, and Panthers), with their last series victory being the 2012 Conference Final against the Rangers. Throw in the fact that the team has fallen catastrophically short of, frankly, relatively modest expectations for three consecutive seasons running and, yeah, you’re going to end up with a lot of frustration.

Honestly, though? I think the Devils fanbase has actually taken this ongoing stretch of misery fairly well to this point, all things considered. When the remnants of the previous successful Devils era finally collapsed into a heap in 2014-15, most fans recognized that the road back would probably be a long one. The team has now largely been hot garbage in six of the past seven seasons. Some fanbases under these conditions are calling for people’s heads as quickly as they show up on the scene, but leaders in the Devils organization have gotten a fairly generous leash from fans in New Jersey. Despite little in the way of success outside of Taylor Hall’s MVP season, calls for the job of head coach John Hynes didn’t grow particularly loud until the horrendous start to the 2019-20 season, his fifth as head coach. When Ray Shero got the axe just about a month later, the fanbase was actually generally more surprised than anything else.

Even in year five of a rebuild with a team on its way to its third bottom-six finish in four years, I would say that a majority of the fanbase was still willing to let Ray Shero try and steer his way out of the mess (even if doubts were growing), which is honestly as much patience as you could hope for from a group of sports fans. That isn’t to say fans were shocked or all that broken up about Shero’s departure, just that they were willing to take that train a few more stops before breaking out the pitchforks. If you’re a general manager, I don’t think you can hope for much more patience than that, particularly in an organization like the Devils, where excellence was the rule for so long instead of the distant pipe dream it feels like these days.

Yes, frustration is continuing to grow and people seem to be fed up with the whole enterprise at the moment, but even now, any perceived fickleness is a result of people desperately wanting this rebuild to be nearing its end, only to be met with things like stretches of 10 losses in 12 games. Additionally, if you use Twitter as a barometer for anything, especially sports fandom, you are often going to come away with the conclusion that a group of people are fickle, unstable, or perhaps even borderline psychotic. I know there are plenty of games where I am ready to declare one Devil or another the greatest ever at one moment and then publicly wishing that someone would drop a NJ Transit bus directly on top of my head the next. Twitter is Twitter though, and hyperbole reigns on that medium. Sometimes, you just have to blow off steam and you fire off tweets like this:

That’s Twitter, though. I don’t suspect the Devils getting blown out a bunch of times in year seven-ish of a rebuild actually violates any criminal codes. As far as whether I truly think this organization is still headed in the right direction? I don’t know for sure. It felt a lot more like it was a few weeks ago and very little has materially changed since then, so it’s hard to say all is lost now. This season may be effectively done as far as the standings go, but this season perhaps never mattered much in the grand scheme of things, anyway. The team has been without its top center (and now-captain) for almost the entire season and the lingering effects of COVID plus an utterly daunting schedule in its aftermath probably can’t be discounted. That me and other fans would be frustrated after what has transpired over the past few weeks, though, shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

Looking at the glass half-full, there have been some promising developments in various corners of the roster and it still seems like a number of the building blocks of the future are in place, the organization just needs to figure out how they fit together and find ways to effectively bolster the team’s ostensibly burgeoning core moving forward. Am I frustrated with this team’s collapse? Yes, obviously, but I also recognize the unique conditions surrounding this season. Are there people that I think it’s time for the organization to move on from? Sure, but I’m willing to give most of the current regime time to figure things out.

I’m trying to remain patient for this team to find a way out of the wilderness, and to its credit, I think a lot of this fanbase is doing their best to do the same. As indicated by many of the posts here in the last week, though, that patience is beginning to wear thin. A fanbase can only endure so many embarrassing disasters before they call for proverbial heads on platters, or worse, just give up on the enterprise entirely. In the end, people in and around the organization should be happy that people are still able to be angry or frustrated by this team as the wait for a return to relevance continues. What they should fear much more is the apathy that looms somewhere beyond that anger and frustration.